Challenges to humanitarian space: A review of humanitarian issues related to the UN integrated mission in Liberia and to the relationship between humanitarian and military actors in Liberia


This study was facilitated by the Monitoring and Steering Group (MSG) the main INGO coordination body in Liberia. The ultimate conclusions and opinions are the authors own and are not necessarily those of the MSG as a whole or its individual members. It is hoped this study will contribute to the global debates on humanitarian space, humanitarian coordination civil-military cooperation and integrated missions

The United Nations Mission in Liberia has improved security and humanitarian access during its brief tenure. It has done so far in excess of expectations and has improved the lives of many Liberians as a result.

The mission has aggressively used assistance work as part of its stabilisation, force acceptance and nation building strategy. This has unsettled many humanitarian agencies and created confusion about roles.

The confusion of roles between humanitarian agencies and the military is widespread. On the one hand military contingents have engaged in basic health care and food distribution, often at the same time as using force to control unrest. On the other hand NGOs and UN agencies have become involved in work traditionally the province of the military such as demobilisation of adult combatants. NGOs and UN agencies routinely use military helicopters and have used armed convoys in the past.

This confusion of roles has not had a detrimental effect on vulnerable Liberians. There are however, latent dangers, not least that a resurgent opposition to the UN and the current government decide to target humanitarian agencies. Even if this chance is remote, it does not seem worth taking such risks unless there is extreme suffering, or people dying. In Liberia this is not the case. Humanitarian agencies have the capacity to carry out the basic assistance work currently undertaken by the military. They can do this without reliance on military hardware. Moreover they have a proven track record in this field and accountability mechanisms that do not apply to military contingents, many of whom will be unclear of basic principles and law governing such work.

The main rationale for the military involving themselves in such work appears to be the assumption that humanitarian work promotes stability. There is little evidence for this, although medical assistance to the population in Tubmanberg may have facilitated deployment. Generally though, the acceptance effect such work provides is just as likely with more complementary work such as road construction. Long-term stability is much more likely to depend on economic recovery rather than short term assistance.

Humanitarian coordination has been problematic in Liberia, in great part related to the integration of humanitarian affairs into the main UN mission. Many of the UN's traditional partners have become wary of coordination of humanitarian affairs carried out by a political and military mission and this has detrimentally affected DP return planning.

The great success of UNMIL in providing a more secure Liberia risks being tainted by some of the negative consequences of the integration project. Greater transparency and the involvement of key partners such as NGOs and UN agencies in this important decision - especially about the structure of humanitarian coordination - would have built trust and potentially avoided such problems.

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